Slocum Giant 2013 : Slocum and the Silver City Harlot (9781101601860) (4 page)

BOOK: Slocum Giant 2013 : Slocum and the Silver City Harlot (9781101601860)
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4

Slocum stared down the barrel of the pistol. He hardly flinched when the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

For a moment, he did nothing, realizing his own six-shooter was empty, too. Then he moved with the speed of a striking snake. His Colt Navy whipped around so the barrel caught Frank's wrist. Slocum felt bone yield, but he doubted anything broke. It didn't have to. Frank let out a yelp of pain as his six-gun went flying from his grip.

“Why'd you go and do that?” Frank grated out, clutching his right wrist.

“You tried to cut me down.”

“It was reflex, Slocum, reflex and nuthin' else. I got all het up in the heat of the fight and got confused.”

Slocum said nothing, considering what to do. His six-shooter was empty, but he held the high ground, towering over the supine redhead. Frank's six-gun might be empty or the hammer might have fallen on a dud, with the next round live and deadly. Slocum hadn't followed the man's fight against the trio of road agents, being too busy staying alive himself.

He scooped up the pistol, opened the gate, and spun the cylinder. All the rounds had been fired. A backhand toss dropped the gun beside Frank.

“It could have been that way. I ain't used to fights. Not like you, Slocum. Not like you.” The man's bright blue eyes fixed on the Colt's worn ebony handles and the well-used gun itself.

“I'm no shootist,” Slocum said. He backed away, reloaded, and then went to where Frank's horse lay still.

It already drew flies, and in the distance he heard howling coyotes exchanging dinner requests. Before long, every scavenger in the mountain forest would circle, waiting for the chance to grab an easy meal.

“You'd better get what gear you want. We have a long walk ahead of us.” Slocum tried to get his bearings. “Silver City is that way, at least ten miles, maybe twelve. It's as close as we can get to the law.”

“The law! What? Why?”

“Outlaws stole my cargo. They shot your horse, left us for dead. If I don't report this to Holst, he'll think I made off with his ice, his wagon, and his team.”

“That makes sense,” Frank said, but Slocum heard no conviction in the man's voice. Other than not letting Frank get behind him, Slocum wanted nothing more to do with the red-haired man.

Slocum waited for Frank to strip the saddle from his horse and heave it up onto his shoulder. He staggered a little. Slocum waited for him to ask for help, but Frank held his tongue. That was just fine. Walking wasn't something Slocum took kindly to, and reaching Silver City might take a day or longer with this rugged terrain slowing him.

“If we follow the wagon tracks, we might overtake them,” Frank ventured.

“You still hot to recover the cargo?” Slocum wondered at the man's determination. Holst might have found himself a real bulldog. Once Frank got something in his head, he refused to let it die.

It struck Slocum as odd how Holst hadn't sent Frank along with him rather than setting him on his trail, but the ice company owner was cantankerous and did things in his own way. A persuasive argument might have been enough for Holst to send Frank along. Or the redhead could have convinced Holst that the cargo was too valuable to trust to Slocum alone. If that were true, Holst's fears had been realized.

After an hour walking, Frank dropped his gear, mopped his forehead with his blue kerchief, and pointed off at an angle.

“The wagon went that way.”

“And a half-dozen riders joined them,” Slocum said. He stared at the ground, then dropped to his knees to get a better read. Looking up, he said, “Apaches. These ponies weren't shod.”

“Indians wouldn't want the ice. They might just scalp those mangy sons of bitches so we can claim the wagon and ice again.”

Slocum rolled the idea over in his head. What Frank said had merit. Apaches would strip the outlaws and leave the rest. They had no use for a wagon and even less for ice. But if they made any mistake while trailing the Apaches, he and Frank would find themselves in a world of trouble. Even if they didn't, the chance of discovery by the Indians was great. Slocum had been told several war parties had slipped away from their reservations dotted around the New Mexico and Arizona borders.

“The Apaches had a camp at one time where Silver City got built,” Slocum said. “Might be they're heading there.”

“Going home?”

“Something like that,” Slocum said. “This used to be their hunting grounds. More likely, they're trying to avoid the cavalry and aren't anything more than a raiding party.”

The words hardly left his lips when distant gunfire came rolling toward them from farther down the mountain. He touched his six-gun and wished he had the Henry rifle he'd left in the driver's box. Firepower counted whether they went against either the outlaws or the Indians. Taking on both sides required more guns than either he or Frank could bring to bear. The smartest thing he could do was let the outlaws and Apaches shoot it out, then go pick up the pieces.

“Come on, Slocum. We got to get down there,” Frank said.

“Hold your horses. Let me scout ahead before we bull our way into a fight we can't win.”

“But the ice!”

Slocum stared at him. Frank was single-minded about the ice, and that made no sense. Even if Holst paid the man a bonus to deliver the ice—or withheld payment for not delivering it—the devotion to duty made no sense when balanced against the man's life. If Slocum hadn't seen the melting ice during the trip, he would have thought Holst was shipping something else to Tombstone.

“You that good a scout?”

“Not too bad,” Slocum said simply. He studied the forest around them, choosing how he would approach the fight.

The reports from a half-dozen different weapons rolled like thunder. With that fierce a fight going on, all attention would be directed at anyone in front of a muzzle. Slocum could creep in behind, get a notion what was going on, then make his plans.

“I don't like it,” Frank said.

“No reason you should. I'm the teamster, the cargo's my responsibility, no matter what Holst said to you.”

Frank bristled, then subsided. From the storm cloud of anger lingering on his face, Frank was about ready to try plugging Slocum again. This time his six-shooter was loaded. Turning his back on him would require an act of faith that Slocum didn't have.

His only other option was to gun down Frank first.

He took the one that didn't require him wasting a bullet when he said, “You skirt the fight in that direction. I'll go this way. Just be sure you know who's in your sights before pulling the trigger.” Slocum watched the redhead's reaction. To Frank, it wouldn't matter who he aimed at. Everyone counted as an enemy.

That suited Slocum. He could handle drunks and backshooters. What he couldn't handle was uncertainty as to a man's intentions.

He motioned for Frank to head out, waited until he no longer saw the man's hat or the thatch of red hair poking out from under the brim, then started in the same direction, tracking with all the skill he had. What Frank did was more important than who was still filling the air with lead.

Frank moved quietly, but Slocum's step came softer than a gentle breeze. He avoided bushes that might spring back and give him away. Where he stepped hardly bent the blades of grass. He placed his boots in the imprints already left by the redhead. This was pure caution on his part. There might never be anyone backtracking Frank, but if there was, he would find only one set of footprints unless he was one damned fine tracker.

The redhead blundered through a thick clump of undergrowth, then flopped forward onto his belly. Slocum took his time approaching to make sure Frank didn't catch sight of him. Ahead, through the edge of a copse, he saw one of the road agents clutching his arm and hopping around. He'd been hit several times, but what chilled Slocum was why the man limped.

He hadn't taken a bullet in his leg. An Apache arrow with its distinctive fletching had driven itself halfway into his thigh.

Slocum slid his Colt back into the holster, then began climbing an oak tree to get a better look at the battle still raging. Not rustling the leaves proved difficult but necessary. Frank stirred uneasily not ten yards ahead and below him. The redhead fingered his six-gun but made no effort to add his fire to the skirmish. For that, Slocum was glad. Frank finally showed some common sense.

He edged out on a thick limb and clung to it with his knees and reared up. Using one hand, he pushed smaller limbs out of the way. From this vantage, he had a complete view of the battle. The road agents had pulled the wagon up not twenty yards away and had exposed the crate. From the condition of the wood panel in Slocum's field of view, they had tried to rip off the slates and hadn't succeeded. The hammer he had carried might have bounced out as they made their breakneck descent this far on the mountainside, or they might have been in such a hurry to cool their hands that they didn't see it in the wagon bed.

They had been caught flatfooted by the Apaches and hadn't a chance to do more than return fire. Now that the battle was stretching on, the road agents were finding better cover and doing a credible job holding off the Indians.

Slocum counted the places where the Indians attacked from and knew there were no fewer than five in the band. Holst hadn't warned him of any Apaches slipping away from their reservation, but such a small band might not have been noticed by the cavalry.

The outlaws certainly noticed them, however.

The one with the arrow in his leg rolled under the wagon where his partner fired methodically to hold the Apaches at bay. The sound of his rifle told Slocum his Henry was being put to good use. If he'd held it in his hands, the fight would have been over in a few seconds. During the war he had been a sniper for the CSA and had turned the tide of more than one battle by sighting in on a federal officer's braid, then robbing the Yankees of their commanding officer. From his perch in the tree he saw which of the Apaches ordered the others about.

Killing the war chief wouldn't make the Indians run away, but it would throw them into disarray. They would have to palaver and agree on a new war chief, which bought time.

The outlaw with the arrow in his leg screeched when his partner rammed it through so the arrowhead came out the back of his leg, then snapped off the shaft before pulling back. Slocum couldn't see the arrowhead clearly but it likely was a broadhead. Yanking it out rather than shoving it through would have caused an even worse wound. Again, he developed some respect for the road agents and their fighting experience.

They weren't fools. So why did they risk their lives for a hunk of ice?

A sudden lull in the gunfire caused Slocum to tense. The silence hurt his ears after all the loud reports. Clouds of white gun smoke drifted through the meadow, making it difficult for either side in the fight to see the other. If even one Apache had had Slocum's vantage, the fight would have been over in a flash.

The three outlaws lay still on the ground under the wagon. This trick lured out two braves, both armed with bows and arrows. The other Apaches with rifles remained in hiding. Step by step they made their way through the smoke until they were only a few yards away.

The Indians saw they had fallen for a trap and dived to the ground as they loosed their arrows. One road agent's slug hit a warrior. From the way he remained facedown on the ground, Slocum thought he had died instantly. The other brave rolled over, firing arrows as he tried to find cover from the road agents' new fusillade.

The Apache jerked as at least one slug tore into him, but he kept fighting, kept moving, let the remaining three warriors offer covering fire so he could escape.

For their part, the Apaches likely wanted nothing more than the mules still hitched to the wagon. Slocum couldn't guess what the road agents wanted. One of them moved from under the wagon and climbed into the bed to use the ice in its crate as cover. For whatever reason, Frank took this as a sterling opportunity to join the battle. He got off three rounds before the outlaws figured they had been flanked and turned their guns on him.

The redhead jumped to his feet and tried to replicate the frontal assault Slocum had tried. It didn't work out for him. He jerked upright, clutched his side, then was spun around again as another round drilled through his hide.

“They're comin' back!”

Slocum didn't know which of the outlaws shouted the warning, but they turned their guns once more on the Apaches. Mounted now, the Indians galloped forward, the wounded man with the bow and arrow trailing a second horse. They circled the fallen brave and tried to get him belly down across his horse. The outlaws fired with the precision of a military unit and drove them away.

The riderless horse reared and pawed at the Apache on the ground, forcing him to release the bridle and return to his own horse. The four surviving Indians beat a retreat.

“Think they'll come back?”

Slocum couldn't tell which of the outlaws asked the question. It didn't matter. They helped their wounded partner into the driver's box and shoved the reins into his hand. Although twice wounded, once by bullet and the second time with an arrow through his leg, the man did a credible job of motivating the mules into pulling. The wagon rattled away toward the far side of the small clearing where the battle had occurred.

The wagon and two outlaws on their horses disappeared through a cut in the woods, possibly an old logging trail.

Slocum lay prone on the tree limb, waiting to see if anything stirred in the clearing. He didn't want the Apaches coming back for their fallen companion, but he wanted that dead man's horse. Without it, he had a long walk to Silver City.

After waiting a respectable time when no one showed his face, Slocum slid over the limb, dangled, and then dropped to the ground. He remained in a crouch, hand on his six-shooter as he listened for anything out of the ordinary. The forest had returned to its natural sounds now that the gunfire had stopped.

BOOK: Slocum Giant 2013 : Slocum and the Silver City Harlot (9781101601860)
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